South Asians and Kenyan Music: pioneering links

Volume 15, Issue 2  | 
Published 18/11/2018
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Years ago, I remember using this column to celebrate the South Asian run photo studios which played such a major part in the documentation of Kenya’s family and social history (See AwaaZ III 2008). A chance outing put the idea into my head that I could do the same for music sellers and music studios in this edition of Awaaz.

In May this year, I went to the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi for the screening of Omutibo, a documentary film about a local beat of the same name, associated with the Luhya speaking peoples of Western Kenya. I sat alongside Tabu Osusa, a good friend and the founder and executive director of Ketebul Music, a production company with which I had collaborated over the years. That collaboration, with me as narrator, resulted in the Retracing series of all-in-one documentaries, CDs and info-booklets which sets out to do just that for the benga rythmn,  Kikuyu pop, the afro boogie of the 70s and 80s and political protest songs in Kenya since independence. Tabu was also the mastermind behind Shades of Benga, the seminal publication on Kenyan music, published in 2017.

After the film was over, several people were invited by the MC to acknowledge applause from the rest of the audience. Among them was an unfamiliar, middle-aged South Asian man. He was introduced as Abdul Karim Rashid who, apparently, had accompanied the film crew in search of living exponents of the omutibo rythmn. One of them, the legendary John Nzenze, was there in person. Rashid, we were informed, was the son of an icon in the field, who had started Melodica Music Studios,decades before. Now, ‘Melodica’ was a name which had informed my own, music-loving youth and it had re-emerged when Tabu had asked me to appraise the initial draft of Shades of Benga. My plan for a forthcoming issue of Awaaz was, therefore, laid out. For where, in writing my article, I may only have remembered names, Tabu Osusa and Shades of Benga, combined, were sure to guide me to the facts.

That evening Tabu and I found ourselves returning to the ‘appropriation’ debate, querying the pros and cons of having outsiders from Europe and the United States (like the young film makers who had made Omutibo)  present themselves as authorities on and chroniclers of our, Kenyan creative arts. The abiding conclusion that we came to was that, whatever the competition and its validation, we were duty bound to tell our own stories. Upon interrogation about South Asian pioneers in the music industry, Tabu urged me not to omit four, seminal names: Daudia, Assanand, Shankardass and Chandarana. And, of course, he urged me to put in a word for the more informative Shades of Benga.

I made it a point to locate Melodica, because it was still there and easily accessible in the centre of Nairobi. I got off a bus outside the Ambassador Hotel and headed down to Gill House, which I had been assured would be a nearby landmark. There I asked a City Council officer for more directions and was delighted to register that he did live up to the promise printed on his uniform, which declared in Kiswahili that his job was to serve the people. Normally, askari wa kanjo have a reputation for harassing people for bribes. Be that as it may, this particular officer abandoned whatever he was doing and accompanied me through an alley which led to the next street along. He said I should cross over and pointed to the requisite sign, which took me backwards in my journey. I covered the last hundred yards or so on my own. I entered Melodica and there, indeed, at the front desk, was the same man whom I had seen at the screening, only now wearing spectacles. A young, African  assistant was visible in a glass partitition behind him. It became clear that his concentration was focused on some paper work. I apologised for not having made an appointment and asked whether I could look around, a request which was readily granted. No great effort had been made to achieve an eye-catching display but many things musical were on sale in the relatively small space: all manner of musical instruments, amplifiers, record players, vinyl records, cassettes and posters of musicians, mostly Congolese mega stars from the past, like Franco and L’Orchestre T P OK Jazz, Tabu Ley and Tshala Mwana.  Everything inside Melodica appeared very ‘old world.’

Melodica had been set up by Abdul Karim Rashid’s father, Pravilal Laljibhai Daudia in 1971 at that very spot. Since then, it has become a place of pilgrimage for music afficianados from all over the world who can spend hours browsing through its treasure trove of rare recordings in a multiplicity of formats. On its web page is the description: ‘Melodica is the oldest producer of east and central African music within our region.’

Even more magnetic, in my youth, however, were the music stores named Assanand’s and Shankardass’, at opposite ends of what is now Moi Avenue, also run by South Asian businessmen. I went to them on several occasions, after months of saving my pocket money, in search of the latest long playing records or ‘LPs’. With 33 revolutions per minute, they were the technological phenomenon of the time. My personal favourites were soul singers like James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Millie Jackson and the Staple Singers, to whom I had been exposed by watching ‘blaxploitation’ movies at the Cameo cinema, a cherished weekend activity during the school holidays.

The last name that Tabu Osusa had urged me to include was that of  Arvindkumar P  Chandarana who, from his base in Kericho, began a production company releasing compositions by Kenyan artistes from 1958. I have had it on good authority that the great pioneer is still alive and still living in Kericho.

Also involved in production in the late 1950s but in Nairobi were first the Capitol Music Store (CMS) and then the African Gramophone Stores (AGS) which were linked, in their beginnings to Isher Singh, Hira Singh, Meghji Karman and Maganlal Jethalal Shah.

On reflection, maybe there is something to be said for putting these music pioneers into a racial category, for history’s sake. However, all I can remember from the days when I used to sport an afro hairdo, in imitation of The Jackson 5, was that I and my friends didn’t much care who made or sold the music of our desire, as long as it got into our hands. It must be pretty much the same for the youth of today. Only they seem committed to doing everything to avoid paying for their music. And it is somewhat predictable that the local music industry has become more and more indigenous. However, we must keep in mind that it was people from the South Asian and British minorities who had the wherewithal to define its beginnings. For those whose appetite for more information has been sufficiently whetted, I would highly recommend the home-grown Shades of Benga. The Story of Popular Music in Kenya:1946-2016. It will be well worth your while.  

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

Word Count: 1,189 words


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